SAN JOSE — Claudia Meza’s family wasn’t sure how to tell her. The doctors had warned them not to overwhelm her. After 49 days fighting coronavirus in the hospital, most of them sedated with a breathing tube, the 51-year-old mother was confused, her memory hazy. She scrambled names and faces, even her own three sons at first.
SAN JOSE – MAY 4: Claudia Meza, center, holds the hand of a medical worker as she is released from Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, May 4, 2020. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
Now, finally, she was coming home, but her children, niece and nephews needed to figure out the best way to deliver the devastating news. Maybe they should tell her right away, they thought, get it over quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Or perhaps they should wait until she’s stronger. How were they supposed to explain that while Claudia lay unconscious in an ICU for four weeks, the coronavirus had taken her beloved sister and brother-in-law in the span of a week?
How would they begin to tell her how drastically everything in their lives had changed?
“She’s waking up,” her son, Giovanni Sanchez, said, “to a completely different world.”
WATCH: After 28 days on a ventilator, Claudia Meza awoke to a changed world and family tragedy. She spent 49 days in the hospital, and eventually recovered enough to return home. She was applauded by the nurses and doctors that cared for her, but her family knew they had to break some terrible news.
A survivor comes home
When she came home Monday, Claudia Meza had been hospitalized for almost seven weeks, since March 17 — the day the Bay Area began its first-in-the-nation COVID-19 lockdown. Back then, her husband had yet to be furloughed from his truck driving job, her sons’ schools were only closed for a few days, and her younger sister, Mercedes Hartwig, was still home in the Central Valley with her husband, Richard.
Now, Claudia was leaving Kaiser Permanente San Jose, a coronavirus survivor wheeled through a hospital corridor to the applause of doctors and nurses who fought like hell to save her. In less than three months, the disease has killed more than 78,000 Americans. And some early studies have shown how unlikely it is to go home after lengthy ICU stays on a ventilator, much less for four weeks.
Those like Claudia who somehow do recover must learn to breathe on their own again in a new world of lost jobs and lost school years.
When the ambulance pulled up to her apartment building in South San Jose, Claudia’s extended family was waiting outside. She was coming home — and just before Mother’s Day.
Doctors had suggested she recuperate at a skilled nursing facility, where she could be treated for her memory and muscle loss, but would still be restricted from receiving visitors. Her family was adamant: Claudia had been quarantined long enough. And there was no way they would tell her about the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law over FaceTime. Now more than ever, she needed the ones she loved the most.
‘Did you miss me a lot?’
“Welcome home!” they cheered as paramedics pulled out the gurney. Claudia looked bewildered at first and shielded her eyes from the sun.
Her eldest, Giovanni, 26, and his cousin, Roxana Flores, 48, — who was raised like a sister to Claudia — felt particularly anxious. The two had been preparing for her arrival, making room for a hospital bed, wheelchair and oxygen machine.
SAN JOSE – MAY 4: Claudia Meza’s family looks on as she returns to her home in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, May 4, 2020. Meza was released from Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center after spending weeks at the hospital dealing with the coronavirus. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
The weeks without her had strained the family. Claudia was the undisputed head of the household and without her daily direction, “it was like everybody was lost,” Roxana said. Her two younger sons were on their own figuring out online schooling. And with her husband suddenly out of work for a month, everyone worried about paying the rent.
But all the hardships of these last seven weeks were overshadowed by the deaths of Mercedes and Richard, who died a week apart in early April. The Vietnam War vet and his wife of 33 years — whose story was featured last month by the Bay Area News Group — were one of California’s first married couples to die from the coronavirus.
Was it too soon to tell her?
SAN JOSE – MAY 4: First responders move Claudia Meza, center, into her bedroom in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, May 4, 2020. Meza was released from Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center after spending weeks at the hospital dealing with the coronavirus. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
The paramedics settled Claudia in her bedroom and hooked up the oxygen. Fighting off the virus had left her so physically and emotionally fragile, she could barely sit up on the edge of the bed.
A rough scab had formed on her cheek where the ventilator pad had been pulled off. Across the room, a statue of the Virgin Mary sat atop a curio cabinet filled with her figurines of angels and saints. The sun streamed in from the window.
Crowding the doorway, the relatives took turns, one by one, approaching Claudia.
Her 5-year-old granddaughter, Emily, who shares the room across the hall with her parents, went first.
“I missed you,” Emily said. In her blue princess dress, she climbed up on the bed and nuzzled her head into her grandmother’s chest.
“Did you miss me a lot or a little?” asked Claudia, her voice muffled from behind her surgical mask.
Giovanni came next. After his mother was hospitalized, he moved back from Long Beach where he was working as an accountant to help care for his younger brothers, come what may. He hugged his mom and broke into tears. “You look beautiful,” he told her.
SAN JOSE – MAY 4: Claudia Meza, right, hugs her son Giovanni Sanchez, left, as she returns to her home in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, May 4, 2020. Meza was released from Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center after spending weeks at the hospital dealing with the coronavirus. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)
Then came his little brothers, Gabriel, 16, and Adrian, 14, both star students whose aspirations for their spring track seasons evaporated when everything was shut down.
“You’re home,” Gabriel said, choking up. “You’re home.”
“I love you,” Adrian said, as his mother caressed his back.
Waiting patiently in the doorway was Claudia’s husband, Juan Meza, who himself had recovered from coronavirus symptoms that left him so weak he nearly fainted. The couple who had met salsa dancing nearly 20 years ago embraced tenderly.
Claudia’s children all knew how lucky they were to be celebrating this bedside homecoming. Just weeks ago, their cousins were collapsing into their parents’ open caskets.
But the emotional reunion wasn’t over. Claudia’s sister, Aida, 68, the eldest of the three sisters, stepped forward last.
Giovanni braced himself next to the guardian angels, straining to hear if this would be the moment Claudia would recognize that Mercedes wasn’t here. Roxana held herself up along the wall, certain that the memories, the family connections, would come flooding back. But the moment passed quietly. The two sisters simply cried in each other’s arms.
‘Wasn’t anyone closer’
Why one sister died and the other survived is as difficult to explain as the virus itself. They were 10 years apart, but so close they talked nearly every day. The sisters loved music and dancing.
PALO ALTO, CA – APRIL 21: A photo of Mercedes Hartwig and Richard Hartwig on display in the chapel at the Alta Mesa Funeral Home in Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Both died a week apart of COVID-19. The Hartwig’s three children reunited the couple by having their caskets sitting side by side during the visitation. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
“There wasn’t anyone closer to her,” her son Giovanni said. They had immigrated to San Jose from El Salvador in the early 1980s with their parents and siblings and became U.S. citizens. When the Hartwigs moved to the Central Valley in the early 2000s, the families remained close. The Hartwig kids considered Claudia a second mother. The Meza kids called Mercedes “Mama Mecky.”
Claudia had just started a new job in early March as an administrative assistant at Sacred Heart church in San Jose when she fell ill with a fever, cough and upset stomach. On the phone, she commiserated with Mercedes about their shared symptoms. They didn’t know how they became infected — maybe Claudia picked it up while working as a driver for Uber and Lyft. They had last seen each other in mid-February at a family birthday party and other family members were also getting sick.
By mid-March, schools were closing, San Jose Sharks hockey games were canceled and Mercedes at her home in Lathrop became more worried about her sister in San Jose than herself. She sounded so weak on the phone, she told Claudia’s husband, and urged him to rush her to the emergency room.
Within a few days, both sisters were having such difficulty breathing they were each in a hospital, 76 miles apart.
From their hospital beds, the sisters managed to talk once more on the phone before Mercedes was rushed to the ICU for a breathing tube. They never spoke again.
Within days, it would be Claudia’s turn to be hooked up to a ventilator and she quickly texted her son: “If I don’t make it, please take care of your siblings.”
“Why would you say that? Don’t say that,” Giovanni replied, “you will be fine. Just have to stay positive. You are healthy and you are young. Just rest and try your best not to freak out.”
Of COVID-19 patients with symptoms, about 20 percent are so severe they need hospitalization, and, of those, about a quarter require a ventilator. How many of those end up dying remains difficult to gauge. Early studies from China, Italy and Seattle showed death rates among patients on ventilators ranging from 81 percent to 26 percent.
For the Meza and Hartwig families, only one statistic mattered: where one mother on a ventilator would live and the other would die.
‘Thought we were going to lose all three’
The sisters had maddening ups and downs during their lengthy hospital stays.
“We thought we were going to lose Claudia when my Aunt Mercedes was getting better,” said their niece, Roxana. “Then things got switched around.”
While Giovanni moved home and Roxana became Claudia’s family advocate, the Hartwig children were frantically keeping up with the decline of their parents. But when they received a call the morning of April 1, they were unprepared: Their father, already weakened from diabetes and a previous heart condition, had died suddenly of a heart attack and pneumonia brought on by coronavirus after five days at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto.
A week later, when doctors switched her ventilator after a blockage had formed, Mercedes’ vital signs plunged. With their mother near death, the Hartwig children were given the rare privilege of a hospital visit. They suited up in protective masks and gloves and, from the other side of a sliding glass door, said goodbye.
The family feared Claudia would be next. “We thought we were going to lose all three of them at the same time,” Roxana said.
“We prayed to God to show mercy,” said the Hartwigs’ son, Rene, 34.
At Kaiser, the medical team knew the tragedy that had befallen Claudia’s sister and brother-in-law. They kept the family’s secret — and fought to avoid a twin tragedy.
But Claudia’s condition was perilous. The virus had triggered a condition called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, flooding her lungs with fluid and plummeting her oxygen levels.
“She was working so hard to breathe, she was in danger of injuring her own lungs,” said Dr. Paul Waldron, the Kaiser infectious disease specialist who oversaw her case. A ventilator helped, but at first she needed its full power, 100 percent oxygen — “a dangerous situation.”
Doctors tried treating her with the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine but didn’t see any clear improvement. They lay her on her stomach to relieve pressure on her lungs. Then, a second problem presented itself: a blood clot formed in her right arm and threatened to lodge in her lungs. Blood thinners relieved that issue, but she needed more medication when her blood pressure plunged, endangering her kidneys, liver, brain and heart.
After so much time on a ventilator, which can permanently damage the trachea, doctors prepared for the next level of care: surgery to insert a breathing tube into her windpipe.
But then, Claudia’s lungs improved, and finally, she could breathe on her own again. When she tested negative — twice — for COVID-19, she was ready to come home.
“She struggled for every breath when she was in the hospital,” said Dr. Sarala Raja, who oversaw the last days of Claudia’s care. “When she recovered, it was the greatest joy.”
A woman appears in her dream
During Claudia’s first night home, her son Giovanni and his cousin Roxana took turns sleeping on the floor next to her. When she woke up, Giovanni immediately texted his cousins.
“She’s crying right now saying that she’s had dreams,” he wrote. “She said it was a lady who was sick also & was telling her that everything was going to be okay.”
“Sounds like mom paid her a visit,” Edward Hartwig, 29, the youngest sibling, texted back.
A photo of Mercedes Hartwig and Richard Hartwig taken in 2012 or 2013. Both died a week apart of COVID-19. (Photo by Hartwig family)
At 2 a.m., Giovanni texted Edward’s sister, Naomi: “She wants to see you.”
The next afternoon, the three Hartwig children gathered outside the Meza home and discussed their strategy.
“The key is not to overwhelm her,” said Edward, who drove in from the family home in Lathrop where he is still going through his parents’ things. “It’s best to play it by ear. For all we know, we could walk in and it could all come rushing back.”
“I don’t know if I have the courage to tell her what happened,” Rene said.
“If we tell her today, will she remember tomorrow?” Edward asked. “If we tell her and it breaks her heart and we have to break her heart again …”
The three steeled themselves and entered their Aunt Claudia’s room. She greeted them with a smile. Naomi, 32, asked how she was doing and mentioned that she had been on a phone call for her work as a music teacher at Presentation High School.
“You’re a teacher?” Claudia asked. “There’s a lot I don’t remember. I see names. I see faces.”
Claudia talked about the pain in her fingers and the back of her head that had rested for weeks on a pillow. They talked about how she had missed the popular Netflix series “Tiger King.” Giovanni played the Latin salsa classic, Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” one of his mother’s favorite songs from her childhood.
As the time passed, Claudia recounted the loneliness she felt in her quarantined room, the fears moving into the ICU, the confusion when she woke up to the news that she had been hospitalized for nearly two months when it only felt like days. “I was kind of lost because I couldn’t remember anything,” she said.
But she remembered the nightmares: She was screaming and no one could hear her.
With the afternoon winding down and still no mention of Mercedes, the cousins drifted into the living room and tried to make sense of their exchange. “It’s very peculiar,” Giovanni said. “The memory, the mind, it’s a strange thing.”
“I’m anxious,” Naomi said, fiddling with her mother’s gold heart-shaped necklace she had been wearing since the funeral.
“Dropping something like this on her could set her back,” Edward said. “I wish there was a handbook.”
Just then, they heard a wail from the bedroom.
‘Your mom … I remember’
The Hartwig children rushed in first. Naomi knelt next to the bed and leaned in close, holding Claudia’s hand.
“Your mom,” Claudia said. “I remember.”
She remembered whom Naomi and her brothers belonged to. She remembered that Mercedes was in the hospital. Was she OK?
Naomi, inches away, paused for a moment, then gave her a knowing look, an almost imperceptible shake of the head. The meaning was clear.
Claudia broke into sobs. “No she didn’t.”
Naomi caressed her aunt’s arm, stroked her hair — and waited for the next question she knew would come.
“How’s your dad?” Claudia whispered.
Naomi gave her the same quiet look.
“He passed?” Claudia said, bewildered. “Oh my God, no.”
She coughed as she cried. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
‘Be strong for each other’
Rene explained that their mother was unconscious and died before they could tell her that their father had passed away. They told her about how social distancing rules meant only 10 relatives were allowed to attend the funeral service.
“When you get better, we’ll celebrate her,” Roxana interjected. She dabbed the tears from Claudia’s cheeks.
As the sun began to set and the room darkened, they all remained at her bedside, the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, the husband, the granddaughter.
At this moment, what was happening outside — the shuttered storefronts and empty parking lots, the teetering stock market and skyrocketing unemployment rate — was a world away. How the family would pay their bills, how quickly Claudia would regain her strength, were all questions for another day.
What mattered now were the people Claudia loved most, the ones she hadn’t seen or touched for nearly two months, right here in this room. As she gathered her breath and stopped shaking, the wise matriarch the family had so desperately missed gently re-emerged.
“I need you guys just to stay together please,” she told them. “Don’t fall apart. Always follow each other. Be strong for each other. Love each other.”
“My mom would have wanted that,” Rene said.
“In a minute, in a second,” Claudia said, “you’re here and then you’re gone.”
The room fell quiet. The secret had been shared, the burden lifted.
Outside, a man pushing an ice cream cart caught the attention of Claudia’s granddaughter.
“Who wants ice cream?” Claudia’s husband, Juan, said.
One by one, the cousins left her bedside and walked outside into the fading light.
SAN JOSE – MAY 5: Giovanni Sanchez, left, takes a photo of brothers Naomi Hartwig, Edward, and Rene with their aunt Claudia Meza, center, in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Meza, who spent 49 days in the hospital sick with coronavirus, was told that while she was sedated with a breathing tube, her sister Mercedes Hartwig and brother-in-law Richard died of the same virus. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)